When Meghan O’Gieblyn was a kid, her family moved around the Midwest—from Illinois to Michigan to Wisconsin—always landing in some bedroom community or subdivision built on cornfields and “never far from a freeway.” There, she writes in an essay in her debut collection, Interior States, O’Gieblyn would hear the dull murmur of “the sound of transit, of things passing through.” This was the ambient noise of a region whose great cities—Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis—were “built as ‘hubs,’ places where the rivers and railroads met.” To grow up in that region is to realize that “whatever promise the future holds, its fruits may very well pass on by, on their way to somewhere else.” The freeways of the Midwest, slabbed on miles of flatland under a wide-open sky, offer the right backdrop. The speeding car passes on the left and drives out of sight.
The feeling of being left behind might produce, in other writers, something like indignation or contempt. But O’Gieblyn avoids self-righteousness. Instead, she displays a hyper-awareness of her region’s place in history. When the writer moved to south Chicago, for instance, she rented an apartment “across from a hellscape of coal-burning plants that ran on grandfather clauses and churned out smoke blacker than the night sky.” The sight of the coal plants is Dickensian, not of this moment, O’Gieblyn notes. The plants don’t stand for progress. They don’t even invoke the memory of progress. They merely remind O’Gieblyn that her place, her home, is not a principle character in the national drama of economic or cultural advancement.
Much of Interior States is about the feeling of not being of the moment—or, as O’Gieblyn sometimes puts it, of living a life that is “anachronistic.”. This has to do with the author’s life in the Midwest as well as her youth as an evangelical Christian. O’Gieblyn grew up in a family that belonged to a shrinking Baptist congregation. In the Nineties, when public school kids were “performing interpretive dances of ‘The Greatest Love of All,’” O’Gieblyn, who was homeschooled, was “memorizing scripture” and coming to believe—in the same osmotic way other kids come to believe in democracy, say, or multiculturalism—that “evil was a real force that was in all of us,” that one must be alert to one’s enemy, the devil, and that hell was “humanity’s default destination.” Her book reveals what happened after she began to question those beliefs.
I was raised Catholic in Michigan, not far from O’Gieblyn’s hometown. At night, after a day of fifth grade at St. Gerard, I would lie in bed and wait until I was almost asleep to pray—too lazy to do it awake, too fearful not to do it at all. Sleepily I’d cross. I’d mumble some contrition, some requests: father son holy spirit God I am sorry for lying and cheating, I am sorry for being mean to Mom, please help me be nicer to Mom. I’d cross again, closing but still pondering the prayer. I cheated today. I am not sorry enough for this. Hail Mary full of grace the lord is with thee. Stopping, I’d cross once more to open the second prayer. Then, panic: had I crossed before saying the Hail Mary? Had I crossed three times or four? If I didn’t cross an even number of times, I was convinced, my prayer would not be sent. It would not make it to heaven. God would not know me. These were the neuroses of a cradle Catholic.
Interior States can be taken as a record of the neuroses of a cradle evangelical. In “Hell”—a vivid, often funny essay about the problem of evil first published in this magazine—O’Gieblyn jokes about realizing, as a child indoctrinated to believe in the salvific power of the “sinner’s prayer,” that if “I could ask Jesus into my heart, I could just as easily ask him to leave.” Because the former meant acceptance into heaven, the latter must have meant damnation. “Once this fear lodged itself in my brain,” she writes, “it became impossible not to think the prayer, ‘Jesus, go out of my heart.’” O’Gieblyn found herself “mentally replaying this heresy, then immediately correcting it with the proper salvation prayer, all the while terrified that something would happen to me (a car accident, a brain aneurysm) in the seconds between, while I was technically unsaved.”
After high school, O’Gieblyn enrolled in Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, the so-called “West Point of Christian Service.” When she and her fellow students at Moody would go out and evangelize, they used words like “sin,” “repentance” and “hell.” “These terms were the water we swam in,” O’Gieblyn notes, “but on the street, against the softly lit backdrop of window displays, they sounded ancient and fierce.” O’Gieblyn sometimes suggests there is a kind of power in feeling as if your beliefs emerged from the crucible of a harsh, distant past. Your moral vision is sharper than modernity’s. And though the secular mainstream assumes what you preach is thoughtless prosperity gospel—what Christopher Hitchens called fraudulence of “Chaucerian” proportion—the doctrine at Moody, O’Gieblyn notes, “was every bit as complicated and arcane as Marxist theory or post-structuralism.”
Why does evil exist? How could God allow so much suffering in the world? At a place like Moody, a complicated set of answers to such questions is always awaiting you. But when O’Gieblyn started really to ask these questions, and to live with them, she began to find those answers unsatisfying. Eventually, after some time abroad, away from her family and the Midwest, she left the church.
Soon, she had a new question: What does it mean to lose one’s religion in the 21st century? Most essays in the collection take up the question in some way; even the ones on “niceness” and “subtlety” gesture toward it. For O’Gieblyn, the event itself, the loss of faith, was a “glacial severance.” If there was some singular epiphanic event—if, say, in a Saul-to-Paul reversal, she got knocked off a horse—O’Gieblyn doesn’t mention it. What she describes most vividly and movingly is what happened after. In “Ghost in the Cloud,” an essay on transhumanism originally published in n+1, O’Gieblyn discusses how her loss of faith filled her with “an unnamable sense of dread”:
There were days when I woke in a panic, certain that I’d lost some essential part of myself in the fume of a blackout, and would work my fingers across my nose, my lips, my eyebrows, and my ears until I assured myself that everything was intact. My body had become strange to me; it seemed insubstantial. I went out of my way to avoid subway grates because I believed I could slip through them. One morning, on the train home from work, I became convinced that my flesh was melting into the seat.
These bodily obsessions, O’Gieblyn comes to realize, were expressions of “the overwhelming despair at the absence of God.” Her body, she writes, was “no longer a sacred vessel.”
This experience felt “anachronistic,” she says, as if she were just catching up to a process the West had gone through more than a century before. Around the time she lost her faith, O’Gieblyn read existentialist novels, “filling their margins with empathetic exclamation points.” She seems to have felt most personally addressed not by any contemporary writer, but by Dostoevsky and his Ivan Karamazov, with whom O’Gieblyn agreed that “even the final moment of glorification could never cancel out the pain and anguish it was meant to redeem.”
“To be a former believer,” O’Gieblyn says, “is to perpetually return to the scene of the crime.” When I lost my faith (the phrase implies, wrongly, that I misplaced something and want to find it), I would go alone to my childhood parish. I’d stand in back and see the same families I’d always seen: the parents of friends, old teachers with their grown kids. Father would proceed to the altar, boys in white behind him, the last holding the processional cross. I’d stay a few minutes, feel increasingly indignant, and leave.
But it wasn’t as if, by leaving church, I could escape. In the Midwest, everything is haunted by Jesus: the Rust Belt towns, the long gray freeways; county fairs in the summer with headlining Christian bands; breweries full of wholesome Christian hipsters in warm sweaters, Iron and Wine or Sufjan Stevens on the sound system. After belief, I didn’t want to drive through the suburbs and come upon some postwar church with hymnals full of David Haas and Marty Haugen songs. Even living near Lake Michigan became impossible. I’d drive to the lake after work and walk along the beach as the sun set, moodily brooding. The lake had its own extra-diegetic soundtrack, from the “Pure Michigan” campaign, which O’Gieblyn describes as evoking the kind of “autumnal sentimentalism” that “animates Starbucks ads and late-career Diane Keaton films.” She notes that you can easily imagine the voice over the ads—Middle America’s dad, Tim Allen—as belonging “to God himself.”
So I moved to New York, in part because I thought there’d be plenty of atheists. The city is, as Christian Midwesterners know, the capital of secularism. But I assumed that most New Yorkers—at least, the writers and editors I wanted to work with—had seriously debated the question of God and simply come out against the proposition. I assumed they’d agonized over the question.
Of course, most hadn’t thought about it at all. New York isn’t atheistic; it’s post-Christian. The debate I was still in, even when I arrived, had long been over. Here, my former Midwestern Catholicism is an “identity,” like an item of clothing I put on before parties or a job interview. Some New Yorkers seem charmed by my youth as a Midwestern Catholic, or take it as evidence of some kind of middle-American authenticity. The stories I tell—about Catholic school, confession, prayer, even my loss of faith—are well-rehearsed. The central moral drama of my life—the belief that God existed, and the struggle to realize He didn’t—has become a quaint anecdote.
O’Gieblyn, unlike me, has stayed in the Midwest—but she has still moved away from something. In Madison, Wisconsin, a college town which is, O’Gieblyn writes, “utopia” for “the Baptist boy who grew up reading Wittgenstein,” she chafes against the hip agrarian liberalism, even developing “a physical allergy to NPR.” Better to tune her dial, during long nighttime drives through the cornfields, to a fundamentalist preacher who “delivered exegeses on the Pentateuch and occasionally lapsed into fire and brimstone.” Slipping into “something like a trance state,” O’Gieblyn would listen to the cadences of the preacher, calmed by that “familiar rhythm of conviction.”
Polite bourgeois liberalism is no replacement for the Christianity O’Gieblyn has left. Sunday church cannot be supplanted by Sunday brunch. And despite no longer being a believer, O’Gieblyn laments the way some evangelical churches have watered down the faith in a bid for cultural relevance. Even after having left evangelicalism, it seems, O’Gieblyn takes pride in having been shaped by community that recognized their “collective guilt” and sought God’s grace. She doesn’t, in other words, prefer her evangelicalism cafeteria-style: You can’t take or leave sin any more than you can take or leave its complements, mercy and grace, like so many lunch selections á la carte. Give me that old-time religion.
In “Contemporaries,” O’Gieblyn describes meeting her friends at an “overpriced restaurant” to discuss “the experiences we deem most crucial to our personal development.” This is a secular ritual O’Gieblyn enjoys, perhaps for its proximity to Christian confession (“The truth is I love nothing so much as to hear about the hygiene of other people’s souls”)—but it is a secular ritual nonetheless, and she can’t help but stand outside it, noting its scripted triviality. “In the future,” she writes, “the whole swath of late modernity will call to mind the image of people eating delicacies and talking about the state of their souls.” There is something fragile and insufficient about this contented, end-of-history lifestyle. Left without Christian eschatology, O’Gieblyn can do little but acknowledge this lack:
Increasingly there are nights when I sit up in bed, awakened by the panic of some half-remembered thought, one of those foundational problems that gets lost in the wash of secondary concerns and emerges when you are loose and unguarded to remind you, with a start, that you’ve forgotten the original question; that you’re missing the point.
When I lost my faith, I did not feel, as it is often supposed, intellectually vanquished. I was not the loser of a chess match with Sam Harris. The loss, the evacuation, the obliteration—these were emotional and spiritual at their core. It’s true, the shift from belief to non-belief was gradual, but the final separation was an occasion. It was a moment of revelation, a biblical event. Scales fell from my eyes; I was blind, and then I could see. In a moment, despair married spiritual clarity, and there it all was. God is not there with you. God is not there. God is not.
I felt that truth, and could feel nothing else. Now, my former Catholicism is a bundle of anecdotes; my crisis of faith, some journal entries. When I take a moment to consider this, I note that, at the edge of all the other political, social, and artistic commitments that give my life something like meaning, there remains a vague, wide absence. Can anything replace religious belief? This is the question that haunts O’Gieblyn’s book, even at its end.